Confronting the Void: A Conversation with Leach


Although he hasn’t gotten much love from the bigger media outlets in Austin, Leach put himself on Ovrld’s radar in a big way with his excellent album Kokedamareceiving Best of 2015 accolades from us in both the album and song category. When we heard that Leach would soon be releasing his follow up, we were eager to talk to him about his new material, his frustrations with Austin music and his experiences with some monks (no, really).

Nick Hanover for Ovrld: First thing’s first: I noticed your Soundcloud now has a Brooklyn tag to go with the Austin one. Are you officially a dual city artist now? What’s prompting the move?

Leach: I’ve romanticized New York since I was a young Texan suburbanite. I went to college for a couple years at Bard in upstate NY, but I ultimately came to Austin chasing music and wanting to finish my degree at UT. I’ve met some wonderful, wonderful people in Austin. I love so much about this city, but it’s been an incredibly tough cookie to crack. The music scene seems to be more of a front to push overpriced beer on distracted audiences than a growing, breathing entity. The scene has name recognition, sure (SXSW, Spoon, Neon Indian, the “live music capital of the world” moniker—really?) but SXSW is overwhelmingly non-local, Spoon had to go to Portland to make it, Neon to Brooklyn, and the “live music capital” thing makes sense if your idea of “live music” is whatever’s playing in an empty room onstage behind you while you nurse those last precious drops of Lonestar that will leave you juuuuuust good enough to drive home.

Unfortunately, I can only point out the problems I see. I can’t offer an idea of what a real music city looks like. I imagine the tension has a lot to do with the fact that Austin’s “live music” moniker advertises more to musicians than to consumers of live music. Sure, the name might drive a couple thousand more heads to SXSW, ACL, or Fun Fun Fun, but it also drives more and more idealistic, penniless dreamers (comme moi) to a city that is just too full to fulfill an artistic fantasy, let alone accommodate a living wage.

I would be afraid of sounding entitled if I were only talking about experiences at my own shows. No, nearly every local show I’ve been to has been similar. Touring acts draw well—after all, novelty sells. The local bills, meanwhile, are often full of incredibly talented artists who command the stage like Madonna circa 1980. Unfortunately, the crowds are either not there or not engaged. Free shows become a necessity—after all, who’s gonna pay $5 for entry when they just shared a Lyft for $3.50 each? Bands play for bar splits (somewhere from $20-$100 is the usual payout at most of the free venues on a given weekend night—that’s $5-$20 per band member in a four-piece) after they’ve already shelled out the $15 to park downtown.

I played three shows during Free Week this year, netting a loss of $50. $45 for parking and $5 for a Lonestar.


Leach playing at Swan Dive. Not pictured: crowd with their backs turned to the stage, sipping Lonestar tallboys.

As with most economic issues, nobody’s really at fault. We can’t point a finger at the bookers, who offer low or no guarantees because bands don’t draw well. We can’t point a finger at the stay-at-home crowds, because who could blame them when the majority of local shows are, well, lonely and awkward? And I can’t point a finger at the bands, whose free labor and earnest promotional efforts only serve to litter downtown lampposts.

Oh, Brooklyn, right! I’m not sure the economics will be any different, but, from what I’ve seen, the vibe is. The shows I’ve seen there have been well-curated, the acts promising, and the crowds engaged. Also, the opportunities are vast and balance the saturation of the music scene. Maybe I’m being idealistic. I have good friends there, too. Oh, and rent is pretty darn comparable to Austin.

If I’m going to fail, I’d rather fail in the city that has gestated my favorite artists than in the city that sells music to musicians.

Ovrld: There are a lot of artists in Austin who flirt with pop elements in their music, but you’ve long stood out to me as one of the only local artists who manages to make unapologetically poppy music that is also genuine and heartfelt. Do you feel that has put you at odds with both the more experimental-leaning electronic Austin scene as well as the clubbier national pop scene?

Leach: It probably does differentiate me a bit from each, for better or worse. I love all the experimental stuff going on in Austin. I’m certainly inspired by many of the local live acts doing it well.

I suppose I sit somewhere between the polished, clubby stuff and the experimental. On the experimental side, I love curated imperfections in recordings. When anyone can craft a perfect vocal take these days, it’s nice to hear the cracks in the process. (Carrie and Lowell for example, has just the right dollop of said cracks, and it elevates the album completely). I think that’s the next step for the national pop scene: embraced imperfections, nit and grit.

I really do wish I could write club music, though. You’re writing to manipulate a heartbeat—how badass is that!

Ovrld: You also have a knack for strong but simple visuals, from your minimalist album art to the nostalgic videos you make to accompany your songs. Your upcoming new album has seen the visuals skew a little darker, though. What has inspired this change? How important do you feel your visual identity is to your aesthetic?

Leach: The change in visuals is inspired by the fact that this new album is darker than anything I’ve done. In the past, I relied on irony when I didn’t want to push the lyrics past a certain point of vulnerability—not because I’m afraid of being vulnerable, but because I’m afraid of sounding cliché. The things that worked well for me on the last record, though, were the honest bits of brokenness and idealism. This new record jumps into those themes headfirst. This time, that vulnerability is terrifying.


The videos are not necessarily complementary to the music, but they do help breathe new life into the songs and are a thrill to create (with my roommate, film stud Ryan Whittle).

The new album cover, meanwhile, was completed (by Matthew Lancaster) weeks before the album was finished, so I was able to turn to the cover for musical inspiration. A new edit of the cover would inspire a new mix of a song, and vice versa.

Ovrld: Your live show surprised me because it’s more guitar heavy than your recordings. What is your approach to interpreting your music in a live setting versus in a recording? You don’t seem to try to simply recreate what is on the recordings, it’s a totally different experience to my ears.

Leach: I tried the laptop-onstage thing for a hot second, but I felt so disconnected from the audience, more like a karaoke singer than a performer. In a perfect world, I’d hire three musicians for every gig and get at something closer to the record, but I’ve had lots of fun sorting out the puzzle of breaking multi-tracked songs into performable loops.

I started doing the looping thing a year ago, then added a harmonizer, and ultimately only now use a backing track on one song live. I feel more connected to audiences than I ever have. Performing is fun. It no longer feels like an obligation. And I get to leave my laptop at home!


Leach, getting friendly with some knobs

Ovrld: The new album is called Millennial Spirituals, which is an interesting mix of old and new concepts and seems to simultaneously be a reference to modern generations fetishizing of the long ago past as well as nod to the darker, more ethereal elements of this work compared to your previous album. What are you trying to communicate with the title? Do you think there are other artists making music for millennials that could qualify as spirituals?

Leach: I spent a week at a monastery in Abiquiu, New Mexico last summer after the release of Kokedama. Each day I woke up at 4am to a bell sounding through a surreally moonlit canyon. I would then walk to the chapel, where the otherwise silent monks were uttering chants accompanied by a Casio organ. The whirr of existential dread was confronted and hushed by the serenity of ritualistic devotion.

Needless to say, I was pretty taken. I initially wanted to quit music, drop out of college, and join.

Once the honeymoon period ended, what stuck was the idea that devotion is how we cope with the whirr, whether it be devotion to God, a lover, art, work, pleasure. I think this millennial generation, though, might be the first one that has the tools to mute that whirr with constant noise. At no point in our day are we forced to confront the void. I’m not sure any other instance of humanity has enjoyed such a peculiar privilege. So in that respect, I’m absolutely fetishizing a past that didn’t endure such a temptation, for whom “mindfulness” was par for the course. Today, I am able to wake up to a podcast, listen to it as I go about my morning routine, listen to music as I walk to class. At no point in my day am I forced to confront the silence. I can drown it out. I can validate this unexamined life by documenting it in social media. We can pretty efficiently ignore the existential problems that make us uniquely human.

This album is an exercise in devotion—to romantic love, to a departed friend, to an idealized future. There are, of course, qualities of a Catholic mass imbued in some of the songs. “What I Do” has the attributes of a penitential rite, for example, though addressed to a romantic love rather than the divine.

Ultimately, I wanted to become like the monks, always mindful of the void but not paralyzed by it.

Fading Frontier by Deerhunter is a collection of millennial spirituals, in my opinion. That one stands out to me the most.

Ovrld: Millennial Spirituals does more genre hopping than Kokedama, beginning with the electro-acoustic ballad of “Bad Luck” to the abstract slow jam “What I Do” to the clubbier R&B of “Sixteen Again” and on and on. Were you hoping to make this EP more of a showcase for your range as a songwriter? Kokedama seemed more connected to things like Passion Pit and Junior Boys while this work, to my ears, seems like it might be a more intimate peak at the ambitions you have as an artist.

Leach: I originally set out to make an album that was the complete opposite of Kokedama, from its themes to its instrumentation. It was going to be guitar + vocals and little else. It didn’t take long for me to realize I don’t have the songwriting chops to sustain an entire album that way. I allowed the guitar + vocals to be the base, but I took my old tools out of the closet and did some necessary gardening.

I didn’t put much thought into showcasing my range. Honestly, I tried to keep the songs as similar as possible in genre and instrumentation. I was hoping to make a few upbeat, catchy, marketable singles, but that didn’t really happen. Luckily, people have been responding to how raw the songs are more than they ever responded to “Tru Luv.” That’s been incredibly inspiring, to realize that honesty and vulnerability can work in an indie single. I had been so needlessly cynical…

As far as ambition goes, I’m just experimenting with sounds and seeing what resonates. I want to someday have the vast sonic oeuvre of someone like Sufjan Stevens, Erlend Øye, or Arthur Russell. Unfortunately, recording live drums, strings, and a choir on a no-budget album is a pain in the ass.

Career-wise, my only ambition is to make enough money to record and perform my music full-time, which seems more and less feasible depending on the day of the week. Plan B is Abiquiu.

Ovrld: The lyrics on Millennial Spirituals are also simpler than the ones on Kokedama, rooted in traditional pop tropes and expressions even as the music is a clear break from that. How did your lyrical approach differ between these projects? Is Millennial Spirituals’ telegraphic syntax an outgrowth of the more repetitive and looping sonic elements of the work?

Leach: I initially wrote most of the songs on guitar, which was something I hadn’t done since middle school. I played many of them live several times before trying to record them—something I’d never done. It was pretty brutal. I got tired of the songs sooner than I would have had they been written and recorded at the same time, which is how I usually operate. The experiment was valuable for the discipline it required, but the songs were quickly dismantled and rebuilt as I recorded them. Verses were discarded; ideas were done away with.

You’re right, though. The repetition and looping remind me of the chants from Abiquiu, a framework in which to meditate and emote. I think about the way the monks sang—the structure of the hymns leave little room for neuroticism. I tried to focus on the way I sang the songs more than the lyrics. The emotional import evolved separate from the chant-like lyrical simplicity.

Ovrld: Going off that remark about music as a career seeming less feasible depending on the day of the week, what avenues have been the most successful for you for getting attention for your work? 

Leach: Local media has been fantastic. Austin has great public radio and great online publications. Ovrld was the first buzz I received in the city. Soundcloud and Bandcamp have also been helpful in finding an audience. Although with Soundcloud’s recently publicized economic trouble, the future remains murky on the social streaming front. I think Soundcloud is niche enough in genre to warrant a subscription model for most of its consumers.The frontier looks to be closing, though, and the industry’s biggest players seem to have re-established pre-internet marketshare.

Another avenue for getting attention is videos, as they foster a more active and shareable listening experience. We’re working on a few lyric videos now, which I think is a largely untapped and exciting medium. Like most, I rarely watch a music video full screen these days, which is why, for example, EL VY’s recent lyric videos are so on point. They’re minimal and modest. They don’t make you feel guilty about being a distracted viewer. They’re a friendly, no-pressure invitation to experience the music on your own terms, for better or worse.


That said, David Bowie’s impassioned “Blackstar” video is a masterpiece—I watched it full-screen. It’s an anomaly in an age of disposable content. However, I don’t think that disposability is necessarily a bad thing. The way internet culture insists on impermanence makes for unprecedented creative possibilities. Look at Kanye.

Ovrld: The album obviously has Millennial in the name, but on a more specific level, what is your desired audience? Who do you want to listen to your music most and how do you hope they interpret and react to it?

Leach: I think my music works best for people in life’s transitional seasons. Throughout the recording process that’s been a source of inspiration and anxiety for me, when the future is daunting as it is exciting.

I hope they feel about it the way I do when I hear a song that resonates deeply, reminded that the world is beautiful and beautifully broken. And I hope they bop their heads.

Ovrld: Now that you’ve wrapped up Millennial Spirituals, what are your current plans? Do you have any New York collaborations in mind already?

Leach: I’m planning an Austin release show right now with some wonderful musicians. I couldn’t be more excited to work with other people more. I also will probably release a couple non-album singles and get out of the mindset of an album for a while.

Several friends of mine are in Brooklyn. In general, I admire too many NY artists to count. I really oughta start getting in touch…

Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Ovrld as well as Loser City, where he mostly writes about comics. You can also flip through his archives at  Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with his friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover